Masahiro Tanaka
AP Photo

The New York Yankees haven’t pursued starting pitching yet this offseason, nor have they really engaged with fan-favorite Masahiro Tanaka.

No one has quite said it, but the New York Yankees are in danger of losing the beloved Masahiro Tanaka.

Granted, it has nothing to do with the veteran righty or his skills on the mound. Andy Martino of SNY reported on Tuesday that the Bronx Bombers haven’t really engaged with the starting pitching market. This includes not aggressively pursuing a reunion with Tanaka, who went 3-3 with a 3.56 ERA in 10 starts during the shortened 2020 season.

Even with massive financial losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Yankees are in danger of making a mistake. Masahiro Tanaka has gone above and beyond to demonstrate his value in the Bronx, even if he’s prone to both cold stretches and giving up home runs.

Now, consider how the Yankees seem to be prioritizing DJ LeMahieu while the crosstown rival New York Mets aren’t being shy about spending money this winter.

The Mets haven’t been seriously linked to Masahiro Tanaka but given Martino’s report, the New York Yankees need to remember how important he is to the team as well as LeMahieu.

A loyal soldier

Not to sound like a broken record, but the Yankees’ starting rotation has a lot of question marks next season. Gerrit Cole is fully penciled in as the ace but doesn’t have much behind him. Jordan Montgomery will be back but was inconsistent in 2020. Deivi Garcia has talent but is still inexperienced at just 21 years old. Luis Severino will be back from Tommy John surgery, but probably not until June at the earliest.

In the meantime, who fills in the remaining holes? Clarke Schmidt is a possibility, but he struggled in limited MLB action last year. Michael King could get more starts, but he doesn’t have a proper putaway pitch yet. Jonathan Loaisiga and Nick Nelson are better suited as bullpen arms, and we all know the Domingo German situation.

Masahiro Tanaka, meanwhile, posted a 3.74 ERA in seven Yankees seasons. He also owns a 3.33 ERA in the postseason, and even that number seems high because he struggled due to bad weather and pitch-tipping in the 2020 postseason. Additionally, Tanaka owns a respectable 3.87 ERA against rival AL East teams.

Most important of all, however, is Tanaka clearly loves being a Yankee. Remember, he signed a seven-year, $155 million deal with the Yankees that had an opt-out after four years. Instead, he opted in for the final three years to help New York contend for a World Series.

The point is Masahiro Tanaka has demonstrated his loyalty to the Yankees through and through. Even with heavy losses, is general manager Brian Cashman really going to let money get in the way of that?

Looming rivals

Plus, if Tanaka were to leave in free agency, who would the Yankees pursue to take his place? Corey Kluber is apparently on Cashman’s radar, but he’s almost 35 and recovering from a pretty serious tear in his shoulder. James Paxton could also come back after an injury-riddled 2020, but will he be his old self again?

Those are all conversations for another day, but what should really have the Yankees front office worried are the rival Mets. The crosstown rivals from Queens have a brand new owner in billionaire Steve Cohen, and he is committed to building a winner. The Mets have already beefed up their bullpen with Trevor May, and Joel Sherman of The New York Post says they could make “one substantial purchase.”

Let me put it this way. If Trevor Bauer and George Springer prove too rich for the Mets’ blood, Masahiro Tanaka could soon become a top priority. He won’t make $20 million a year playing for them, but Cohen will see to it he’s compensated well. If this does indeed go down and Tanaka leaves the Yankees, it would be a betrayal worse than, for my fellow wrestling fans, Seth Rollins leaving The Shield for The Authority.

In a nutshell, as important as DJ LeMahieu is, the Yankees need to make their veteran pitcher a priority too.

Final thoughts

Contrary to the tone of this piece, the New York Yankees probably shouldn’t panic when it comes to Masahiro Tanaka. Jack Curry of YES Network has said this offseason’s free agency will not be a hot stove, but a cold stove. All teams lost millions last season from the lack of fans in attendance. It’s not a shock that they’re now gunshy about spending money.

And even though owner Hal Steinbrenner says his team lost the most money out of any MLB squad during the pandemic, his team is still the New York Yankees. Earlier this year, Forbes ranked them as MLB’s most valuable franchise at $5 billion. Not to downplay what were surely serious financial losses, but it’s not as though the Yankees are completely broke.

Mind you, none of this is to say the Yankees should abandon efforts to re-sign LeMahieu. He is and should remain the top priority because he’s too important to let go. A powerful lineup has always defined the Yankees, and he sets the tone at the top of the order.

But the best lineup in the world means nothing without a pitching staff to support it, and that’s where Tanaka comes into play. The Yankees need too much help directly behind Gerrit Cole to let Masahiro Tanaka sign elsewhere. Be it waiting for the pitching market to set itself or other reasons, to just move on from Tanaka would be a terrible mistake.

He’s 32 and still a strong and reliable arm, so offering a four-year deal worth between $15-18 million a year is reasonable. Now, it’s just a matter of the front office’s commitment to getting a deal done.

Brian Cashman, your move.

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.